Monday, 28 February 2011

Some Tips for World Building

World building isn't just the preserve of the fantasy and sci-fi fraternity (though they seem to spend more time on it than anyone else, to the extent that it can even become a problem. See below.) Every story needs a place to happen, and that place is somewhere that you, as the author, either select or create. So get the most from it. Here are some things to remember:

  1. Your 'world' can be any size. World in this sense does not specifically refer to a planet sized space. Take the classic sit-com set up of a single central space with maybe a few shots outside in the second series once the budget goes up a bit.
  2. It should reflect the themes of the story. The world you create is not an inert backdrop, but a situation in which your characters exist. It offers ways to express themes, from the formality waiting to be punctured of Wodehouse's country estates and clubs to the fantasy parodies of the Discworld. 
  3. Even the real places are created worlds. The cities and towns you write don't have to follow their real examples perfectly, but even when they do, the overall world is as much about people, background, and the things you choose to focus on as simple geography.
  4. Can you reduce the essence of your world to a single line? A lot of people play about with maps, and endless sheets of extra work, but a world that grabs your attention will often have just one fundamental thing at its heart. If you can identify what that is, you will often be much better placed to create a coherent world.
  5. Try not to create it separately. You see a lot of gamers do this. They create a world the way they would for an RPG, and then try to put a story in it. Except that half the time, it isn't a story that fits. Create the right world for your story, instead.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Some Tips for Better Pantsing

Pantsing (or writing by the seat of your pants, for the one person in the universe who might not know) can be a great way to capture a raw, white hot stream of inspiration and get it down on paper before it vanishes. It can also be a good way to end up with incoherent and badly plotted work. So how do you get the first one and not the second. More importantly, why am I writing this when I plan so much of my work in advance?

The answer to that is that, compared with a lot of people, the plans I get down on paper are actually quite sketchy. I also wrote Searching without reference to any sort of plan (hence the slightly curious double bite ending and a couple of other issues. Suffice it to say that I planned Witch Hunt rather more thoroughly. And then largely ignored the plan of course, but still...)

  1. The first key to better pantsing is simple: recognise that you do actually have a plan. It just happens to be in your head. Almost no one writes with no overall idea of where they are going and what they want to happen except possibly as some sort of deliberate experiment. Even if you don't want to write it down, take the time to fix it clearly in your mind's eye before you begin.
  2. Keep notes. One of the major problems to affect this sort of writing is the continuity error, so make sure you keep track of what is going on.
  3. Learn about novel structure. Good structure is important if you're going to come up with something that is balanced, moves forward well, and comes to a pleasing finish. Even if you aren't going to meticulously plot your architecture, it still helps if you know what it should look like.
  4. Be prepared for a total rewrite or two. Of course, this is true of all novels, but I find that well plotted ones need it less. The base there is sound. It's the execution that is a problem. Pantsed novels often have deeper flaws that need big changes to correct. What I'm saying is that this is not some 'easy' way to do the work.
  5. Recognise the limits of your inspiration. It may be that you get a chapter or two in that first burst that you absolutely have to get down in one go. Just because you've started that way though, don't be afraid to admit that you have reached the point where the inspiration has run out, stop, and take a moment to plan your next steps.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Fantasy jobs you don't hear about

It's amazing how few jobs besides hero come up in fantasy literature, really. All right, so you have farmer, blacksmith, wench and innkeeper, but beyond that you don't hear so much. Here then are a few of the other jobs that are essential to the effective running of any fantasy world:

  1. Dragon repainter. Obviously, the most fashionable colour of dragon changes season by season, but why go to the expense of a part exchange when you can simply have yours repainted?
  2. Treasure horde locator. A hero's job, you say? Since when? They always show up with an already drawn map pointing straight to the loot. Who do you think draws it?
  3. Barbarian horde travel agent. It isn't cheap moving half a million men and horses across a continent, so anyone that can offer a good package deal is onto a winner.
  4. Magic item name patenter. Everyone knows that artefacts should have unique names, but how do you stop wizards from all calling their next sword durendal or excaliber? By having someone to go around keeping records, of course.
  5. Guild den location scout. Everyone knows that thieves' guild dens should be smoky, cramped spaces at the back of twisting alleys. Unfortunately, because everyone knows this, it can be hard to find the right property at a reasonable price. Smart Guildmasters hire an expert to take the work out of finding that perfect secret base.
  6. Roadside farrier service. What use is your knight if he's stuck out in the wilderness because his warhorse has thrown a shoe? These farriers (usually in bright yellow carts, for some reason) come out to you.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Brian the Dragonslayer

Brian had made the mistake of reading the guidebook before he came to Woodland, despite Spider warning him that they were never accurate. So far, the little kingdom, with its miles and miles of forest, was proving her right. “Idyllic” was the word they’d used, but as far as Brian could see, “bramble filled and easy to get lost in” might have been more accurate.

Or “dragon-infested” of course.

That was why he was there. The people of the idyllic nation’s capitol had woken up a week ago to find a large green dragon flying over their town, before setting light to one of their nicest picnic areas. After that, it had settled into one of the place’s hundreds of woodland glades, flying out regularly to snatch livestock, burn holiday cottages, and generally make life about as difficult as it could be for a nation that made practically all its revenue from the tourist industry.

Naturally, the town elders had posted a reward for getting rid of it, which was how P. Edgeborough & co had come to be involved. Given Brian’s affinity for reptiles of all sorts, it had seemed like easy money, especially since there were Evil Sorcerers out there who would pay good money to add a dragon to their Towers of Doom.

Right now, actually, it didn’t seem like such easy money. Brian was pretty sure he was lost. And there was the question of other dragon-hunters to consider. They’d turned out in force, mostly carrying weapons slightly larger than they were, almost uniformly kitted out in extremely shiny armour, and generally regarding Brian like he was a complete amateur for not doing the same.

The only exception had been a barbarian warrior woman who had grabbed his knee rather worryingly, and painfully given that she had enough muscle for two normal people, over dinner at the local inn, before giving Brian the number of her cabin. She’d seemed quite upset when he’d turned her down. At least, from the way she’d started twirling a morningstar around, Brian assumed she was upset.

These thoughts occupied Brian enough that he hardly noticed when the trees gave way to a large clearing with a hillock in it. He noticed slightly more, when he tripped over something long and thick lying in the grass. Something long, and scaly, now that he came to look at it rather closer up.

The dragon uncoiled itself from where it had been sleeping, stretching slowly as Brian watched, before shooting a gout of flame into the sky. Brian stared at it in wonder. So much wonder, in fact, that he hardly noticed the figure in armour who ran out of the trees, holding a huge two handed sword.
Curiously though, it didn’t run at the dragon, but at Brian.

‘You can’t have it! It’s mine!’

Brian was so stunned that he almost forgot to move out of the way. Thankfully, the dragon chose that moment to flick its tail, sending the armoured figure sprawling. The would-be dragon slayer stood and fixed the dragon with a glare made slightly ineffectual by the fact that its possessor appeared to be a young woman who seemed several years too young for the armour, now that Brian got a better look at her.

‘What did you do that for?’ the young woman demanded of the dragon. ‘It’s no good if someone else comes along and deals with you, is it?’

We Like Him.

The words were clear, though they didn’t seem to bother with things like ears. It took Brian a moment to realise what he was hearing.

‘Hang on,’ he said, ‘since when can dragons speak?’

‘Oh, great,’ the woman said, ‘now you’ve blown it. I’ve got to get rid of him now.’


‘What do you mean, “No”? He could spoil everything.’

I want to speak to him.

That was fine by Brian. The idea that dragons could actually communicate was almost on a par with finding out that they existed in the first place.

‘Can all dragons do this?’ he asked. The dragon made a sound that might have been a snort of laughter, though if so, the jet of flame that set fire to a nearby bush wasn’t entirely appropriate.

Hardly. Only the oldest of us have this gift. The others are just…teenagers.

That at least explained why they were uncommunicative.

What are you, little human? You seem different.

‘Um… I’m Brian. I work for this business that supplies magical… stuff.’

The young woman in the armour piped up again then.

‘Xzax, please, you’ll spoil the plan, and then I’ll have to go back to milkmaiding. I hate bloody milkmaiding.’

We know, Yana. But he’s nice.

‘Plan?’ Brian echoed. ‘There’s a plan?’

What sort of plan could involve a dragon causing trouble, followed by a young woman showing up in armour, he wondered. Maybe she was a hunter, but why would the dragon
let her hurt it.

‘They’ll never give us the money if he tells them,’ the woman, Yana, complained.
‘Besides, he’s probably another dragonslayer, come to try and hurt you. I won’t let him do that.’

It came to Brian then.

‘You and the dragon are in on this together, aren’t you? That’s… well, it’s probably not very nice, for one thing.’

Yana glared at him.

‘You see, I told you! I’ve got to kill him now.’

She hefted the sword in a way that was, if hampered a little by the sheer size of the weapon, still almost certain to do Brian an injury once she brought it round. Brian took a step back.

‘Um… can we talk about this?’

The swish of the blade would have taken his head off if Brian hadn’t chosen that moment to duck.

‘Only,’ he continued, ‘I can see why you’d want to do this,’ he dodged a downward sweep, ‘but I think I can see a better way.’

Yana wound up for another tremendous blow, but the dragon caught her armour with a claw, dragging her gently but firmly away from Brian.

What did you have in mind?

The dragon leapt, it rolled. It breathed fire just inches from Yana as she threw herself to the ground. She took a mighty swing with her sword, and the thing collapsed to the ground, defeated. Yana stood over it with one foot on its neck, brandishing the sword in the sunlight.

The crowd gathered in the clearing applauded heartily, before the dragon got back to its feet and managed something approximating a bow.

That concludes our entertainment, ladies and gentlemen. The next show is at three o’clock.

Brian waited until the crowd had wandered off before going up to them.

‘That went pretty well.’

‘Better than I thought,’ Yana admitted.

The Woodlands’ Elders were happy?

Brian nodded.

‘They took one look at the way news of a dragon had been attracting heroes, and jumped at the opportunity. I even got them to stop talking about making you pay for the damage you’ve already done, after I pointed out that the extra business of the dragonslayers more than made up for it. They’re talking about three shows a day.’
Yana beamed.

‘That’s great!’

For now, at least. The dragon sounded cautious. I have never been a tourist attraction before, but I would guess that it can’t last forever, though.

‘Maybe not,’ Brian admitted, ‘but after this, there will be plenty of people who need a dragon. Sorcerers, Warlords, all sorts of people.’

‘Not so many who’ll need me though,’ Yana guessed. Brian shook his head.

‘That’s where you’re wrong. They’ll want you, because when we talk to them, we’ll just happen to mention that dragons of this power can only be kept in line by specially trained dragon-mistresses, of which we just happen to know one.’

‘You mean I don’t have to go back to milkmaiding?’ Yana asked, as though the possibility was too much to hope for. Brian raised his hand solemnly.

‘I promise, nothing to do with cows at all.’

And of course, it allows us to put up our fee.

‘Well yes, which, since Edgeborough and co. get 10%, can only be a good thing.’

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Swords, Stones, and Brian

Brian Northington crept through the darkened streets of Filbertford, sword strapped carefully to his back alongside his backpack, making hardly a sound as he flitted between the stone and timber buildings.
At least, that was how he’d thought it would go when he’d planned this escapade. Unfortunately, Brian’s imagination had forgotten to take account of the simple fact that, when flitting along darkened streets, it’s actually quite hard to see. So far he’d tripped over twice, skinning his knees the second time, and making enough noise that he was surprised half the village hadn’t descended on him.

He looked the part for these sorts of nighttime heroics, at least. A life spent handling large snakes, and lately trying to wrangle dragons, had left him with muscles that stood out under the darkness of his sweater and jeans, making him look a lot like he was in the business of delivering particularly heavy boxes of chocolates. The sword on his back was definitely magical, giving off a soft glow that he’d had to block by wrapping the thing in layer after layer of cloth.

It was just a pity, really, that it was the wrong one.

The right one lay ahead, dug halfway to the hilt in a massive block of stone that dominated the village green. It had been an easy mistake to make. After all, how was he to know which sword was for Filbertford’s local wizard to stick in a rock, and which was supposed to go to some would be evil warlord who’d probably be killed by the first set of adventurers to happen along. At the time, it hadn’t even seemed to make much difference.

Then Peter Edgeborough, his employer, had noticed the receipts and explained that it definitely did matter, and not just because acquiring a reputation for delivering the wrong thing was not good for a business dedicated to serving the needs of every hidden dungeon, magical grove and temple of light from here to the end of the multiverse. Well, not quite that far, but they were working on it.

More importantly, the sword currently residing in the Filberfordians’ rock was a thing of almost pure malevolence, crafted from assorted substances that would have the Health and Safety people rubbing their hands in glee, and which definitely wouldn’t do much good to whatever poor person pulled it out. Peter had explained that blades quenched in the blood of a hundred virgins and bespelled with words that would drive a normal person mad were fine for wannabe evil-warlords, because they were mostly halfway there already, but that it just wouldn’t be right to give them to normal customers. Particularly if they wanted them to become repeat customers.

It was at that point that Brian had offered to go and retrieve the thing. Well, that wasn’t quite true. First, he’d demanded to know where P. Edgeborough & Co. managed to get things like that in the first place. The answer wasn’t quite what he’d expected. It was amazing, the things that people sold in garage sales these days.

After that, Brian had suggested simply talking to the wizards they’d sold the wrong sword to, but Spider, the company’s other member, had vetoed that idea. The thing to do, she’d said, was to switch the swords back before anyone noticed. She’d do it herself, except that she was too busy. Or couldn’t be bothered. One or the other.

So that was how Brian came to be creeping towards the Filbertians’ great stone block, armed with the right sword, a potion Peter had assured him would get the other sword out, his emergency portal for quick exits, and an extra large tube of superglue for sticking the new sword in place. He inched towards the stone, finally able to make out the details of the weapon as he got close. Now that he knew what he was dealing with, Brian had to admit that it did give off a feeling that was faintly uncomfortable. It was kind of like the feeling that came when someone you’d been happily talking to for the past few minutes suddenly admitted to being a traffic warden.

Fishing out Edgeborough’s special potion, Brian wondered what you were supposed to do with it. Peter had forgotten to give him any details on that part, so Brian settled for dumping the contents of the vial over the stone. A faint hissing sound followed, sounding like nothing so much as stone dissolving, which was quite surprising since Brian didn’t actually know what dissolving stone was supposed to sound like.

The stone was dissolving! Hastily, Brian grabbed for the embedded sword as the huge rock began to resemble nothing so much as a lump of jelly that hadn’t set properly. He didn’t know what Peter’s potion would do to metal, but he didn’t want to find out. With a wrench, he hauled the thing clear of the rock.
Light flooded the square, half-blinding him. Out of nowhere, a voice that sounded like some god, or at least like Brian Blessed through a megaphone, boomed.

‘Lo! Behold the new king!’

It repeated itself, and the light continued, revealing the sleepy faces of villagers staring down, if not with reverence, then at least with a combination of sleep befuddled confusion and awe that might have passed for it.

Brian did the only thing he could think of. He ran.

Not that Brian was much of a connoisseur of mobs, but this one seemed to be unusually persistent. He’d been running for almost a mile now, and it was still following. The assorted mix of villagers, most of them still in their nightclothes, raced along behind him.

Bizarrely, they didn’t seem to be angry. Brian had expected cries along the lines of ‘kill the thief’ or ‘quick, get him!’ but instead the few yells from the crowd were more of the ‘come back Your Majesty!’ variety. Not that that made him want to stop. There would be all kinds of trouble once they worked out that he wasn’t their rightful king, and probably even more if they discovered the mix-up with the swords.

He thought about jumping out of there. After all, he had his portal. The trouble was, if he just vanished, it would be pretty obvious to the local wizards who had taken their sword. Besides, Spider would probably shout at him.

So he kept running. After another half-mile of sprinting down country lanes Brian managed to pull into a bit of a lead. He threw himself over the nearest hedge, hoping the mob would lose him in the darkness. He didn’t care much about what was on the other side.

‘Mmmff! Gerroff!’

Some horrible, ragged thing shoved at him in the dark. Since he was in a business that put monsters in dungeons to do exactly that, Brian found his brain racing. Could it be a Vile Scraps monster, or some sort of hobgoblin, or maybe some sort of undead? The undead were always popular. Well, except at parties.

It took Brian a moment to realise that it was a young man, dressed in scraps of clothing that looked like they’d been put back together almost at random. A crooked staff nearby proclaimed that the young man was a shepherd, though to be honest, the field full of bewildered looking sheep was also a clue. He struggled in Brian’s grasp.

‘Look,’ Brian said, ‘there’s a mob heading this way, could you please keep still?’

‘Oh no! Not again!’

It occurred to Brian that since he doubted the shepherd had people jumping on him over hedges every night and telling him that mobs were coming, he probably meant something else.

‘Whatever it is, I’m sure it can wait. Did I mention the mob? Incidentally, I’m Brian.’

‘Stephan, and never mind the mob.’ The young shepherd answered. ‘I’ve fallen asleep again when I’m meant to be fetching the sheep back. Farmer Gustav is going to throw me out this time for sure! And then what will I do?’

Since he was making more noise than was really good for them, Brian clamped a hand over Stephan’s mouth.

‘You can start by keeping your voice down. The farmer’s going to be the least of your worries once this mob catches up.’

He took his hand away, and the other man shook his head sadly.

‘You don’t understand,’ Stephan continued, but quietly, ‘I’d rather be torn apart by a mob. If I’m thrown out of there, then I won’t be able to see Maria anymore.’

‘Maria?’ Brian asked, not really paying attention. The distant, but still approaching, sound of angry villagers would do that.

‘His daughter. He says I’m not good enough for her, but while I’m working for him it’s easy for us to sneak off together. She’s perfect, and wonderful and…’

Brian clamped his hand over Stephan’s mouth again as the mob got close.

‘He has to be here somewhere!’

‘Come out, Your Majesty! We’re just here to… what are we here to do again, Fred?’

‘Swear fealty, bow, shout hurrah, that sort of thing.’ Another voice, presumably Fred, supplied. ‘Though I don’t know what sort of king he is, running off like this. Honestly, I thought this Sword in a Big Rock stuff was supposed to find us the right candidate. I’ll tell you, if he doesn’t come out soon, I’m off home, and we can forget the whole thing.’

Brian, sitting very quietly, stiffened. Partly that was because he’d just leaned back against quite a thorny branch, but mostly it was because he suspected that ruining everything the clients had put a sword in a stone for would not make Peter and Spider very happy. The trouble was, what else could he do?

His gaze drifted to the shepherd, and he wondered how good a view of him the villagers had got while still half asleep. Dragging the sword he’d brought out from behind his back, Brian leaned closer to Stephan.

‘How would you like a chance to really impress that girl of yours?’

‘So you just handed him the magic sword and shoved him out into the open?’ Spider, real name Cynthia, demanded. Brian nodded uncomfortably.

‘That’s perfect!’ Peter exclaimed, slapping him on the back. Or at least as far up it as he could reach.


Brian and Spider said it together, but it was Spider who continued.

‘Peter,’ she said, ‘I don’t get it. Not only did Brian here botch the initial order, but he’s ruined the wizards’ scheme with the sword. How can that be perfect?’

The small man adjusted his glasses and shrugged.

‘Oh, I’m sure it doesn’t matter who got the sword. The clients were complaining when they ordered it that they weren’t sure were they were going to get a suitable candidate to haul it out. If anything, Brian has saved them some work.’

‘But some shepherd…’

‘Is perfect. Nicely mythic. I’m sure they’ll be very pleased. And the young man gets his love, which I’m told can be very important in these situations.’

Spider nodded, and for a moment her expression softened.

‘I suppose so.’

Brian, deciding it was the best he was going to get, turned to get back to work.

‘Haven’t you forgotten something, Brian?’ Spider asked.

Brian’s brow creased.

‘Like the other sword?’ Spider prompted. ‘Come on, hand it over. I’ll drop it off with the warlord. I’m heading that way anyway. I thought I’d try talking him into the super-deluxe dungeon.’

Brian looked at his hands, and then in his backpack, and then, against all common sense, in his pockets. A sense of dread mounted in him, of the sort that usually comes to a man when he thinks he might be about to be sacked.

‘I must have forgotten it,’ he admitted at last. ‘I think I probably left it behind a hedge. I’ll just go and…’

‘No.’ Spider said firmly. ‘I’ll go.’

‘We’ll all go.’ Peter said calmly.

They did. After all, it isn’t every day you get to go to a coronation. And the coronation of King Stephan the Sleepy was universally acknowledged as quite a good one, even if he did nod off half way through.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Brian Magical Brian

Being the next of my Brian Northington stories. Enjoy. Or not. Possibly you'd rather go off and practise the trombone instead. Don't let me stop you. The last one is the post immediately before this, for anyone who hasn't read it, but wants to. The rest of the stories will follow at various points this week.

‘Are you sure this is a good idea?’

The words rang through the interior of P.Edgeborough and Co.’s warehouse as Brian forced them out. When Spider had offered to teach him his first piece of magic, he’d jumped at the chance. Now though, there were one or two things bothering him.

For a start there was what Cynthia, who couldn’t argue about him using her real name if Brian only did it in his head, had chosen to wear. There was enough padding that she’d have looked like some sort of American Football player, if those had been stunningly attractive redheads. It didn’t look like the outfit of someone who was feeling particularly confident. Nevertheless, Spider nodded.

‘Of course I’m sure,’ she said, and that was another difference. No American Footballer would ever have that cut glass accent that sent shivers down his spine. ‘I’m just also taking precautions in case you should happen to go all Sorcerers Apprentice on me.’

The precautions in question seemed to amount to a couple of fire extinguishers, a large blanket, a first aid kit, and a pile of cushions large enough for either diving into or hiding behind, depending on how badly things went wrong. Trouble the not-exactly-a-chameleon, Brian’s pet and unofficial shop nuisance, sat on top of the pile, happily copying a floral pattern.

‘I wish I knew how he did that.’ Brian said. ‘Chameleons should change colour to match their mood, not what’s around… mmph!’

Spider, who’d clamped her hand firmly over his mouth, looked him in the eye.
‘Brian, we’ve talked about this, haven’t we?’

‘Mmmph.’ Brian agreed.

‘No talking endlessly about lizards.’

‘Mmmph.’ It was true. She had told him. Brian had to admit that he liked talking about lizards quite a lot, well… reptiles in general really. Brian liked to think that it was a love that let him be the company’s perfect monster-catcher. Admittedly, the bit where he could persuade reptiles up to and including dragons to do as he asked also came in useful.

For some reason, though, Spider didn’t like listening to it. At least not after the first ten minutes. Brian found it very strange.

‘mmph.’ He reiterated. ‘mmm mh mmph ee aat mmph mmmph?’

‘What?’ Spider demanded, and took her hand away.

‘I said “but why can’t we wait for Peter?”’ Brian repeated. ‘I thought that…um… magic was supposed to be his sort of thing.’

‘It is, but I doubt he’ll be teaching you any time soon. Peter, for all that he’s a wonderful man, has the memory of one of your lizards.’

‘Actually… mmph!’ Brian had to admit that he liked having Spider this close to him, even if the effect was rather ruined at the moment by the layers of padding. Not to mention the grill of the helmet, which was pressing uncomfortably into his face.

‘Look, Brian, do you want to learn how to do this?’

Brian would have nodded if he could have.


Forty-five minutes later he was still trying. Spider seemed to be getting a little impatient. She’d taken up a position on the pile of cushions, and was pointedly ignoring the fact that Trouble had settled down on top of her head and gone to sleep.

‘Come on, Brian. I’ve repeated the words for you a dozen times now.’

The words were part of the problem. They, all right Spider, had selected a simple ‘eerily glowing light’ spell, apparently on the basis that there were only a few things that could go wrong. Unfortunately, it seemed to involve a long and complicated chant that Brian was having trouble remembering right.

‘Are you sure all this is necessary?’ He asked, trying to concentrate on the rock Spider had placed in a clear patch of floor. ‘It never seems this complicated when you or Peter do this.’

Spider sighed.

‘That, Brian, is because we’ve both been doing it a while. The words are kind of like… guidelines for your mind. Haven’t you noticed that they’re in Latin?’
Brian had to admit that he hadn’t. Except for the proper names of snakes, he’d never learnt any. He said as much.

‘Really?’ Spider asked. ‘They taught us it at school.’

Brian wasn’t about to point out that Cynthia Williams-Frothes had almost certainly gone to a rather posher school than Brian Northington. They’d probably had their Latin lessons while he was having extra Getting-Beaten-Up-For-Your-Lunch-Money. Spider didn’t seem to notice.

‘Well, the Latin’s kind of an arbitrary choice, on the basis that a few of the older books are in it. It’s not like it’s a language that shows up on every world, is it?’ Spider stretched, and Trouble jumped off her, looking reproachful. ‘The words are just something to hang what you’re actually doing on. When you’re better, which of course presupposes that at some point you’re going to make this work, you’ll be able to change them to suit yourself. That’s why half the evil-wizards in the multiverse have these horrible sounding incantations. It’s all advertising.’

Bizarrely, that made a kind of sense to Brian. It was like… his mind struggled to come up with a suitably scaly comparison, before settling on one.

‘It’s like how Trouble probably doesn’t really understand what I’m saying,’ he tried, ‘but he understands my tone of voice.’

‘Something like that.’ Spider agreed. ‘Not very much like that, admittedly, but if it will help you concentrate...’

Brian concentrated. He knew the words by now, or thought he did, mumbling his way through the syllables and hoping it didn’t make much difference. If he’d been looking carefully, he might have noticed a soft, golden glow coming from the stone in the moments before the one thing guaranteed to break his concentration happened.

‘Brian? Little Brother, are you in here?’

‘mumble, mumble, mumwasgl?’ Brian managed as Rachel rounded the corner, looking her usual image of platinum blonde professionalism in a suit that she was desperately trying to avoid bringing into contact with anything in the building.

‘So this is where you’re working. It’s very… oh, hello.’
Her gaze fixed on Spider with just a hint of a condescending edge. Spider didn’t seem to be paying attention, though.

‘Brian,’ she said, a frantic note in her voice, ‘you can’t just stop…’

‘Have I come at a bad time?’ Rachel asked, but in that special voice big sisters have to tell their brothers they’d better give the right answer. Brian did.

‘Not at all,’ he managed, ‘I’m sure this can wait…’

‘No, Brian, it can’t! Get rid of her. Now!’

Spider grabbed his arm as she said it, but she wasn’t quick enough. His sister had already taken hold of Brian’s other arm, leaving him stuck there between them.

‘There’s no need to be like that,’ she said, managing to inject both hurt and possessiveness into the words. ‘Honestly, Brian, if I’d known your little friend was going to be so rude, I wouldn’t have bothered. All I wanted was to pop by and say… what the fuck is that!?’

Since Brian had a feeling that no one, not even his sister, would show up to say something like that, he followed the direction of her stare. He soon wished he hadn’t. The rock was still glowing, but now it seemed white hot. Hotter. Hot enough to melt a hole in the floor. And through that hole, a huge yellow head and arm were trying to squeeze their way through.

‘What is that?’ Rachel shrieked again, but Brian didn’t answer. He was too busy watching as more of the creature pulled itself through the hole. In the absence of further information though, his sister did something that was probably a perfectly reasonable response to a huge monster climbing out of the floor. She started screaming.

‘Who dares to summon Mumwasgl?’ The creature roared over the screams. And then it didn’t have to. There was the sound of flesh striking flesh, and Brian whirled to see Rachel’s cheek bloom red where Spider had slapped her. Spider shoved her towards the pile of cushions.

‘Just sit there and don’t move.’


‘And be quiet!’

To Brian’s shock, his sister did so. The creature rising from the floor wasn’t nearly so obliging.

‘I said,’ it boomed, ‘who dares to summon Mumwasgl? And, um, could you give me a hand with this floor, I seem to be stuck.’

Brian thought about it for a moment, before looking over to Spider.

‘Did I…?’


‘But,’ he said, ‘I didn’t mean to.’

The yellow creature roared again, pulling at the floor.

‘Did not mean to? Did not mean to? You said my name, didn’t you?’

‘That wasn’t a name,’ Brian protested, ‘that was just a sound. What sort of a name is Mumwasgl anyway?’

‘And now it makes fun of my name!’ The beast struggled harder against the floor. Brian thought he saw it budge an inch or two. ‘I will crush thee. I will rend thee. I will…’

‘Do none of the above.’ Spider supplied, hitting the thing over its head with a broom. Which broke. ‘Well, that’s one more we won’t be selling to any witches. Honestly, they’re so fragile… don’t just stand there, Brian. Do something.’

Brian looked around for something he could do. He looked again at the section of molten floor, and an idea struck him. He snatched up the nearest of the fire extinguishers, pointed it at the creature, and unloaded it in its face. The thing screamed, and Brian had to admit that he did too, because so close to the creature was hot.

Spider joined in. The difference was that, when hers ran out, she started hitting the thing with it as it whimpered. Brian quickly gave it a go too.
And it worked. Admittedly, the creature couldn’t exactly move out of the way. Brian and Spider just had to watch out for the sweeping claws of its free arm as they pounded away. Finally, the creature let out another roar, more of a whimper really, and started to worm back through the hole. When only its head remained, it cast a baleful look around the room.

‘Curse you!’ it snarled. ‘Curse you all!’

It ducked back, and the hole sealed over without a trace.

‘So,’ Spider asked, still panting from the exertion, ‘how do you think your first attempt at magic went?’

‘Um…’ Brian thought about it, looked down at his burnt hands, and then over to where his sister lay curled in a ball on the cushions. She was, he noticed, staring at Trouble, who seemed to be experimenting with polka dots. ‘…not that well?’

‘Got it in one. Next time, don’t stop a spell without shutting it down properly. All that energy has to go somewhere. In this case, into summoning that thing. Which brings us nicely to our second point. Never, ever, make fun of some demon-thing’s name. It annoys them. Other than that, a pretty good first try.’

‘Pretty good?’ The words came from the cushions, where Rachel rose like an avenging angel. ‘Pretty good? I don’t know what you’re playing at, but this, this is just… wrong! You can’t do things like this, you can’t…’ She sank back into the cushions, and Spider put down the wand she’d just used.

‘Time for your second lesson, Brian.’

‘A second lesson?’ he asked. ‘Um… after everything that just happened?’

‘Definitely.’ Spider moved off into the stacks of apparently random objects that made up Edgeborough and co.’s stock. She came back inside a minute with a small, leather bound book. ‘Lesson two is kind of traditional. Memory spells. Otherwise known as how to make people,’ and here she gave Rachel’s unconscious form a look, ‘forget about lesson one.’

Sunday, 13 February 2011

The Complete Brianiad.

Since I'm quite busy with a couple of novels for clients at the moment, I thought I'd take the opportunity to finish off something I've been wanting to do for a while. Those of you with longer memories may recall some of my Brian Northington stories (Receipt for a Dragon, Basilisks and Brian, Briantrap Dungeon). They form the first three of a series that currently (and probably permanently, since I have changed the series totally to make a YA novel of it) stands at eight. Over the next little while, I intend to put up the other five. My apologies in advance for the length of some of them. They weren't really designed with this in mind.

First on our list is 'Sphinx Hijinx'

Brian sorted the paperclips into neat rows for the third time, according to how bent they were. The first, he’d gone by colour, and then he’d laid them out by size. Before that, he’d rearranged the magic swords, cleaned the now empty dragon cage, and even attempted some of the filing, though in the end he’d given up on that.
There wasn’t even anyone to talk to. Trouble the not-quite-chameleon was there of course, shifting colour happily to match each of the paperclips in turn, but he was hardly a conversationalist. The others at Edgeborough and Co were all out

Peter Edgeborough, the owner and proprietor of quite possibly the universe’s strangest wholesaler, was away surveying a tomb for fitting with a full array of traps and skeletal minions. Cynthia (and even in his thoughts Brian could hear her reminding him that it was Spider, never Cynthia) was off testing a system they’d put in for the Mad Warlord of somewhere with too many consonants to actually pronounce. They were, in short, having fun.

Brian was not having fun, having been left to staff the warehouse that served as an office. Apparently, Peter didn’t think he was ready yet to deal with jobs on his own. Spider had been more blunt.

‘Don’t touch anything,’ she’d told him, ‘don’t move. Try not to even breathe too hard. Maybe you’ll get to the end of the day without causing trouble.’

Maybe if he’d remembered that when the crystal ball on the desk rang, the day might have been more straightforward.

It took him a moment to remember how to answer the thing (just cloud it with your breath, in case you want to know) and when he did, he found himself staring at a woman with dark, kohl-lined eyes, dark hair cut shoulder length, and skin the colour of smooth chocolate. Her jewellery did a nice line in golden scarab beetles.

‘Mr Edgeborough?’ she demanded.

‘Um… no. I’m Brian. Mr Edgeborough’s not in at the moment.’

‘So you are in charge?’

Brian thought about it for a moment. Peter hadn’t said he was in charge, but who else was there? Besides, he quite liked the idea of being in charge. It was a considerable improvement on his normal position in the grand scheme of things.

‘Yes,’ he replied earnestly, if not entirely honestly, ‘I’m in charge.’

Even through the crystal ball, Brian could see the woman looking him up and down.

‘Very well,’ she said at last, ‘we are Queen Emnotephi, and we require your help. It seems we’re having a problem with a sphinx. How soon can you get here?’

‘Well, um… you see… I’m not really supposed…’ Brian began.

‘You do perform monster disposal, don’t you?’

‘Well, yes.’ Brian had heard the others tell stories about all the monsters his predecessor in the job Philip Straggle, had dealt with. Curiously, they’d been slightly less forthcoming about how exactly he’d left the job, but Brian hadn’t seen it as important.

‘Then,’ Queen Emnotephi finished, ‘we will expect you in twenty minutes. The thing’s playing havoc with our attempts to get our new pyramid built. I’m sure you understand how it is.’

She rang off. On the whole, Brian thought, it would have been more helpful if she’d actually mentioned where she was Queen of. How was he supposed to find the place…

Hang on, a corner of his mind interrupted, you’re not actually thinking of doing this, are you? You’re supposed to stay here, remember?

Brian listened to that thought for about a second before ignoring it. He was bored. He was supposed to be the monster specialist there, wasn’t he? He could probably find Queen Emnotephi’s location somewhere in the files. This would be a good chance to show the others that he could handle these things on his own. Also, he was bored.

Besides, how hard could it be?

‘What’s the capital of Australia?’


Brian threw himself flat as a huge paw sliced through the space where he’d been standing, getting a mouthful of sand in the process.

‘What’s the melting point of tin?’


He rolled to avoid a lunge that ended with the creature staring down at him from only a couple of feet away. Hurriedly, Brian scrambled back to his feet.

Finding the right place had been, as he’d thought, just a matter of going through the files, only made complicated by Peter’s usual ‘dump everything in the drawer and forget’ method of filing. Even getting there hadn’t been a problem, since there were always spare Portals lying around. Catching the sphinx, on the other hand, was proving to be a problem.

Brian had, he thought, come prepared. He’d fished a dart gun and a net out of the clutter that filled most of the warehouse, brought a cargo crate to transport it in, and even hunted through the notes left behind by Philip Straggle in search of information.

The sphinx, he’d written, is a curious beast in that it feels the need to ask questions before it strikes, only attacking those unfortunates who get them wrong. Perhaps this is a natural mechanism for avoiding devouring intelligent life. Classically, they ask the question ‘what goes on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three in the evening?’ to which the answer is man. Correctly answering enough times seems to confuse the things, giving plenty of time for darting, and/or beheading.

Obviously, Brian decided, he hadn’t realised that some of them had been working on new material.

‘What’s the principal export of Guatemala?’

This time the blow caught him. It was only a glance, but it was still enough to send Brian sprawling, stars spinning in his head. The creature looked down on him hungrily.

‘And now,’ it growled, ‘for our final question…’

A blur sped across Brian’s, admittedly far from crystal clear, field of vision, dodging past the Sphinx as it turned and tried to ask something about Earth’s distance from Jupiter. It took Brian a moment to recognise the elegant, flame haired, and frankly gorgeous form of Cynthia Williams-Frothes. By that time, of course, she’d grabbed hold of him, reached up to her ear, and activated the portable portal tucked discretely away there. The baking desert faded, transforming as if by magic (well, actually, exactly by magic) into the offices of Edgeborough and Co.

Spider shoved him roughly back into a chair.

‘What do you think you’re playing at, Brian?’ She demanded. ‘Didn’t I tell you not to do anything? Do you think taking on a sphinx counts as not doing anything? Do you?’

‘There wasn’t anyone else.’ Brian pointed out. ‘Besides, I’m supposed to be the monster hunter here aren’t I?’

‘You’ve been here, what? A couple of weeks?’

‘And in that time what have you let me do, Spider?’ Brian sighed. ‘I know I’m not this Straggle bloke…’

‘Don’t talk about Philip.’ There was an edge to her voice now.

‘…but I do work here. So far, it’s like you don’t dare let me do anything dangerous. You’re trying to mother me, Spider, and it’s probably very kind, but I should be pulling my weight here. Besides, why do you get to have all the fun?’

Spider rolled her eyes. ‘You think taking on a Sphinx without even learning the answer to their riddle is fun?’
Brian paused. ‘You mean they should only know the one question?’

‘They’re too stupid for anything else. Why?’

Brian took a deep breath, and explained. Shortly afterwards, he saw Spider bite her lip.

‘This is bad.’ She said. ‘But I have an idea.’

Quiz Night, the sandwich board proclaimed in suitably chalky letters. Brian looked at it with a certain amount of disbelief.

‘You’ve brought us to a pub quiz? What are we going to do, memorize the answers?’

‘Better,’ Spider replied, ‘we’re going to kidnap the winners.’

Brian waited for her to laugh at the joke, and gave up after a few stunned seconds.

‘You’re serious, aren’t you?’

‘Have you got a better idea?’

‘Actually,’ Brian said after a short pause, ‘I think I might have.’

‘That’s right, this way…’ Brian stepped out into the blasting heat of the desert, ‘If you’ll follow me, the special champion of champions quiz is just this way.’

Behind him, half a dozen individuals stepped out onto the sand. They were a motley collection of beer bellied men, bespectacled middle aged women and a gangly youth who looked like he’d heard about getting a life before deciding he didn’t want one. Almost as one looked around them at the fierce conditions, took another look just to be sure, and hurriedly started back towards the portal through which they’d just unwittingly stepped. It was a course of action that met with very little success, since Spider had jumped through after them and closed the thing.

‘Now, nobody panic,’ she said in the sort of brisk, professional voice that demanded attention. ‘Our special quiz is just this… oh never mind.’

The last words came at the sight of a sphinx landing in a spray of sand.

‘Mmm,’ it purred, ‘new food.’

Someone screamed. To Brian’s ears, it sounded like it was probably the gangly young man. He opened his mouth to reassure the group, but the Sphinx was quicker.

‘Tell me… what was Nick Drake’s last album?’

It fired the question out like a tennis player expecting an ace, but, as much to Brian’s shock as anyone’s, it got an answer.

‘Pink Moon.’

That was from one of the balding, rotund men. Brian wasn’t sure which. To be honest, he was having trouble telling them apart. The answer seemed to come out automatically, despite the fear in his voice. The Sphinx snarled.

‘All right then… in what year did the Thirty Years War begin?’


That was from one of the women. Brian was watching the Sphinx now; saw it wince with the correct answer, heard the pause before it fired off another question. Needless to say, the answer was the correct one. The quizzers might not have a clue what was going on, but some part of their brains couldn’t resist the urge to show off how much they knew.

‘aargh! How many strings does a mandolin have?’


Brian could see the effects as answer after answer came from the terrified quiz team. With each question, the sphinx would snarl and pace in anticipation of the hunt, and with each answer, it would seem to get weaker. The effort of questioning was wearing the thing out! It was working! Spider was already creeping forward, a large net held carefully for the capture. Seeing her approach, the sphinx seemed to draw itself up, pulling together its last reserves of energy.

‘What Madagascan lizard has three horns that it uses to push rivals from branches?’

‘Er…’ There was a notable silence from behind Brian.

‘I know this one…’

‘No… it’s got to be…’

‘Gotcha!’ The sphinx bounded forward, it’s claws slicing towards Spider.

‘The Jackson’s Chameleon!’ Brian hardly recognised his own voice until the words were out. The sphinx slumped to the floor, which is quite a difficult thing to do mid-leap, whimpering. In an instant, Spider had the net over it.

‘Good work, Brian.’ She looked suddenly grateful, and Brian found himself feeling inexplicably hopeful.

‘Does someone want to tell us what’s going on?’

Spider’s expression changed to one of mild annoyance.

‘It seems our quizzers are getting over their shock. I suppose I’d better tell them what they’ve won.’

Brian nodded. Not that she was watching him any more. Over his shoulder, he heard her reciting the first words of the forgetfulness spell they’d brought from the warehouse. He heard the soft thumps of unconscious bodies hitting sand.

‘Are they going to be all right?’ he asked when Spider reappeared at his side.

‘They should be fine. Well done with that question.’

Brian shrugged. He had a hard time believing that nobody else had known such a basic lizard fact. Even so, he felt better. It was good to have done something useful.

‘What are we going to do with that?’ he asked.

‘Oh, there’s lots of dimensions that will have a use for something like this.’

‘What? As a guardian monster, something like that?’

Spider smiled. ‘Good, Brian, it’s nice to know you’ve actually been paying attention. Maybe we’ll have to start letting you out on more jobs. Actually though, I had another thought. After all, our dimension isn’t the only one with quiz shows, and I think we’ve just found the perfect host.’

Thursday, 10 February 2011


  • A client has asked me to produce something surprisingly similar to an idea people have been asking me to play with for a while. It's comic sci-fi rather than fantasy, but there are still strange schools, parodies of other things, and a decent helping of evil. Or there will be when I finish the plan, anyway.
  • Also on the planning front, I want to make sure it's not just me, but the most basic point with any plan is that you plan the whole piece of work, and then write the piece of work, isn't it? I'm only asking because I have run into someone who plans a bit at a time, but surely this combines all the worst points of plotting and pantsing?
  • I'm reading Dante's Inferno at the moment. Great fun, even if I keep having to look at the notes to learn who half the people he meets are. It's interesting to see how many of the standard elements of the genre he keeps.
  • Tonight is the junior foil competition at my fencing club. I know, because I'm running it. It was supposed to be two weeks ago, but only a couple of our juniors have shown up each week. This week is absolutely their last chance.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

A Plug

My short story 'the affair of the Dark Lord in the Library' has gone up over at the Hoggle Pot Journal. Enjoy.

Friday, 4 February 2011


Have you ever noticed that fantasy and sci fi types always have such repetitive motivations? It's always 'rescue the princess' or 'save the world' isn't it? (actually, there's probably a reason for that, since you need a big enough motivation to power the whole plot, but still). In an effort to spice things up, some heroic motives that you probably won't find in sword and sorcery any time soon, but might come in handy if you have any heroes making cameos:

  1. Endeavouring to make it to the great city of ... on the basis that it seems to be the only place in the whole barbarian kingdom that sells meaningful amounts of clothing beyond furry underwear.
  2. A knightly quest to find the perfect birthday present for the princess who has everything.
  3. Rescuing your heroic sidekick (all right, your pet hamster) Archibald.
  4. Endeavouring to secure planning permission for the new ducal castle from the infamous Town Hall of Doom.
  5. Having to take on endless quests to scrape a living. Thanks to the magic of continuous division, those half kingdoms aren't worth what they were.
  6. You left your front door key on Mount Evil at the end of the proper quest.
  7. Trying to do proper homage to a King who follows the medieval tradition of processing around the country, but who doesn't seem to have the hang of concepts such as slowing down enough for would be vassals to catch up.
  8. Because it's the weekend, and a spot of barbarian-ing makes a nice change from accountancy.
  9. Trying to reach the pub before it shuts (this one actually works, in a sort of reluctant hero way, if you shove enough 'proper' quests in as obstacles)
  10. Edeavouring to pass the practical exam on proper heroism (When I slap the neck of your warhorse, I want you to come to a complete stop, leap off, and rescue the nearest damsel.)

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

I've been interviewed.

Tessa over at Tessa's Blurb has been kind enough to interview me about assorted things writing related, from my approach in general to what the process of ghostwriting entails. Head over here to take a look.